Paying for Privacy: The Problem with Mark Zuckerberg’s Plan for Two Facebooks

On Tuesday April 10th, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook implied that his company may introduce a paid version of Facebook, in addition to the free version that will always remain. It’s important to remember that any paid version would likely only protect new data collection, and wouldn’t apply to already-collected data.

Here’s a small snapshot of his testimony:

Creating a free version and a paid version of a product with different levels of privacy are worrisome for two reasons – (1) the fact that people will only get the privacy protection they desire if they can afford to do so, and (2) privacy policies are so long and full of legal jargon that people rarely read and understand them anymore.

Countries crafting new privacy regulations today are forgetting one key fact: no one reads privacy policies anymore. They’re incredibly long and boring, and we’d spend hours each day reading them if we took the time to consider each one individually. Companies haven’t forgotten this fact, and they’re using it to their advantage.

For example, Twitter’s Privacy Policy is 3,838 words. LinkedIn’s Privacy Policy is nearly double the length at 6,039 words. According to a 2017 Time article by Manoush Zomorodi, it would take 76 hours per year to read every user agreement we’re asked to accept. This is an unrealistic expectation. As a result, companies know that privacy policies no longer have the desired effect of notifying individuals about how their data is collected, processed, and shared with third parties.

An August 2016 article by Jonathan Obar and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch entitled The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services discusses a social experiment in which the authors created a fake social networking platform with a fake Privacy Policy and Fake Terms of Service that closely resembled that of LinkedIn. They could elect to either read the contracts or take the click-the-box consent approach without reading them. However, two significantly problematic clauses were added to the fake Terms of Service to evaluate whether people truly read these contracts if they chose to open the documents. One of those clauses gave the user’s first born child to the company, and the other discussed giving the data to the NSA and third party vendors for data-driven decisionmaking. The authors of this article reported that:

Survey “[r]esponses revealed that just 83 participants (15%) had concerns about the pollicies. Of those, nine (1.7% of those surveyed) mentioned the child assignment clause and 11 (2%) mentioned concerns with data sharing….Despite these concerns and the finding that policy-reading times were well below the expected average, 100% of participants agreed to both policies. Thus, even all of the particiipants who noticed the child assignment and NSA clauses agreed to the TOS.”

This is just one example of the problematic legal conclusion that consumers are truly consenting to online contracts. Do you remember the details from the last Privacy Policy you agreed to? Or, more importantly, do you remember the last time you read a privacy policy or terms & conditions policy in full?

Many countries around the world look at privacy as a basic human right (Europe is a great example), and yet the United States is increasingly placing a price tag on it. Why should a wealthy person receive better privacy protections simply because they have the money to make that choice?

Let’s look to other industries as examples of how individuals have exchanged their data for discounts. Many people may not realize that they’re sacrificing their privacy in the process. For example, store loyalty cards collect purchasing data while the cardholders receive discounts. They likely signed up to get the discounts, did not read the policy, and are unaware of what they gave to get these savings.

In 2015, John Hancock Insurance announced that it would provide its customers with up to 15% in discounts, as well as other perks in exchange for using a free FitBit, which transmits data back to the insurer, and answering questions about their medical situation, exercise habits, and mental health. The New York Times article announcing this new program raised an important privacy question: will your insurance premium suddenly skyrocket if you can no longer exercise as often or you don’t want to answer as many questions?

In recent years, car insurance companies have offered their customers the option to install tracking devices in their car, in exchange for lower insurance premiums. According to a 2018 U.S. News and World Report article, “whatever information your insurance company deems relevant to determining whether or not you’re a good driver. This data is sent back to your insurance provider and, if they like what they see, they’ll reduce your premiums or give you credits on your auto insurance.” In other words, customers are exchanging their privacy for the possibility, but no guarantee, of a reduced insurance premium.

Wealthy consumers have the luxury of deciding whether to spend the money to protect their privacy and limit data collection. However, for many consumers, the need to save money is the number one priority. They don’t have the luxury of reading the contract to decide whether they are comfortable with the trade-off.

Since individuals no longer read privacy policies and having two versions of privacy settings establish unequal access to privacy, companies like Facebook should be prohibited from taking the approach proposed by Zuckerberg.


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